Religion for Atheists: Reviews
Charles Moore in the Telegraph, 30 January 2012
‘The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of a book, “is whether or not it is true.” Many believers will find this an unpromising start, but de Botton is not writing for them. His book is subtitled “A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion”.
One of the many, many defects of the Dawkins/Grayling school of thought is that it is so driven by rage and scorn that it refuses to attribute anything good to religion. Since even these high priests of atheism have to admit that religions often exhibit good precepts, great men and great art, they find themselves having to argue that all these good things have nothing whatever to do with religion, but have merely been accidentally conjoined to it because of the surrounding culture.
De Botton sees the absurdity of this position. Although he acknowledges “the furious institutional intolerance of many religions”, it is manifest to him that the great religions are “the most successful educational and intellectual movements the planet has ever witnessed”. They deserve to be studied: there are lessons to be learnt from them.
So he offers a series of acute observations of various aspects of religion, often encapsulated in almost aphoristic sentences. Here are some: “Religion seems to know a great deal about loneliness”; “it is a sign of immaturity to object too strenuously [as atheists often do] to being treated like a child”; “The greatest Christian preachers have been vulgar in the very best sense”; “To sustain goodness, it helps to have an audience”; “Christianity has been guided by a simple yet essential observation that has nevertheless never made any impression upon those in charge of secular education: how very easily we forget things”; “It is telling that the secular world is not well versed in the art of gratitude”.
De Botton also has an instinctively religious grasp of the power of paradox. He notes that the doctrine of original sin is extremely comforting and that the confessional is a kinder place than the psychotherapist’s couch. He explains that originality in art is much less interesting than repetition and that pessimism makes you much happier than optimism.
De Botton brings insights like these to bear upon the inadequacies of the modern secular world. Take the example of museums. They play a role in our culture quite like that of churches — they are treated respectfully, rich people give money to them to salve their consciences, people attending them often feel exalted and often bored — but museums “have unusual but telling difficulty in answering why art should matter”.
Modern universities have a similar problem. Their humanities departments believe in culture, as opposed to religion, and that is why they teach it, but they do not teach it “as a source of guidance”. For this reason, what they teach does not sink in very much, whereas the teaching of religion does.
Oddly, given that most atheists are opposed to hierarchies and think of themselves as democratic, atheism is too much run by the intellectuals for the intellectuals and is disdainful of ordinary people. Religion understands that its precepts can work “at a variety of levels”. They can be encountered not only in books and lectures, but also in eating, dancing, kneeling, washing, singing — and in calendars and different times of day, in journeys, in silence, in birth and in death.
To apply some of these lessons to modern living, de Botton offers suggestions which are laughable. He would like there to be “Agape Restaurants” where everyone has to sit down and eat together. There should be the 12 Sorrows of Adolescence (and 21 of Divorce) rather than the Seven Sorrows of Mary. He wants a Temple to Perspective and “a psychotherapeutic travel agency” which would “align mental disorders with the parts of the planet best able to alleviate them”.
De Botton has a keen sense of humour, so I think he knows that these ideas are mostly a bit silly. He tells the sad tale of August Comte, the 19th-century thinker who tried to establish a Universal Religion of humanity, with rituals, churches and even (sort of) saints, but no God — and got nowhere. He recognises that there is something doomed about all such projects, but does not seem to ask himself why.
The problem relates to where he starts. De Botton is right about many of the outward and visible signs of religion, and about the good effects they bring to society, but he shies away from what is at the heart. He describes many of the attractive things about holy communion services, but does not consider that what is being re-presented in them is a sacrifice, and not any old sacrifice, but the one and only sacrifice of the God who was also man.
It is rather as if someone wrote about the joys of military parades without any conception that the job of soldiers is to fight.
When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, he said: “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth.”
Then Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” but did not wait for Jesus’s reply. In his view that the question of the truth of a religion is “boring”, de Botton resembles Pilate, though in much more benign form. The truth of religion is certainly the most perplexing thing in the world, but it is from its truth that what Alain de Botton calls its “uses” spring.